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What Africa grows

Cassava? Yam? Cowpeas? Plantain? The very words may tend to glaze the eyes of Americans and Europeans, whose daily lives are remote from farms and fields.

Yet Africa's story -- the headlines, the suffering, the search for blueprints for the future -- is the story of farming, of agriculture. Consider . . . Cassava:

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The French call it manioc. Americans may know it as tapioca. To Africans today it is what the potato was to Europe a century ago.

Almost 200 million Africans are said to depend on cassava's potatolike root for 40 percent of their calories every day.

West African women soak the root, peel it, pound it into a powder, add water, and call the resulting porridge gari. Fried in palm oil, it is called yellow gari.

Sometimes called the world's largest nongrain crop, cassava takes a year to grow to full size from the root -- much larger than potatoes. The plant resists drought, but is susceptible to two insects accidentally introduced from Latin America, the green spider mite and the mealybug. So improve cassava, make it more productive (IITA varieties have reached 6 tons to 12 tons an acre, against an African average of 2.5 tons to 3.2 tons), defeat the mealybug, and you've done Africans a huge favor. Yams:

Known in Nigeria as the ``king'' of root crops. A big yam can weigh 10 pounds. It is bound up with tradition and ceremony in West Africa.

If cassava is the poor African's food, yam is middle class. Until now it has been expensive, and difficult and tedious to grow. IITA thinks it is changing this by making yams cheaper and easier to cultivate. Improve its yield, solve the problem of root knot, and you will make another big contribution to Africa's future. Cowpeas:

The green leaves as well as the beanlike pods are edible, high in protein. An excellent second crop. Cowpeas survived the drought in Botswana last year. IITA sees a big future for new varieties yielding up to 1 ton per acre. Plantain:

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It looks like bananas, only smaller, and it grows the other way up. It is usually grown close to hut or house for family use. IITA sees cash-crop potential as well.

One Nigerian entrepreneur is marketing plantain chips (something like potato chips) and is thinking about plantain flour that might be used for making bread.

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